Who comes to mind when you think of someone who can sing notes as high as the sky? Mariah Carey, I guess. The fact that she can safely navigate the whistle register — the highest register that a human voice can reach — is simply amazing. But before Carey started pulling off those whistle notes was Minnie Riperton.
She was known for her five-octave vocal range before Carey became famous for the same thing. Riperton’s hit song in the 70s, “Lovin’ You”, which remains a classic ballad for lovers of all ages, features her very high “whistle register” vocals. But her music career was tragically cut short by breast cancer, which took her life in 1979.
Here’s her story
Born Minnie Julia Riperton-Rudolph on November 8, 1947, she was the youngest of eight children to Thelma and Salleh Riperton. Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, she began her professional career as a backup singer at Chess Records for legendary artistes such as Etta James, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry.
While young, Riperton studied music, ballet, and drama at Lincoln Center in Chicago. She was trained to become an opera singer and as such, she studied under Marion Jeffery. Her training focused on diction, phrasing and breathing. But along the way, Riperton became interested in soul, R&B, rock, and pop. By age 15, she was singing lead vocals with the girl group, the Gems. Though the group didn’t really make it as it would have loved to, it helped shape Riperton’s career. According to one account, the Gems, which would become the session group under the name, Studio Three, produced Riperton’s 1965 hit “Rescue Me”. The group also became known for providing background vocals for other artistes.
Riperton went on to release the hits, “Lonely Girl” and “You Gave Me Soul” before becoming the lead singer of the psychedelic soul group, “Rotary Connection” in 1968. It was during this period that she met her future husband Richard Rudolph, a music producer and songwriter. They married in 1969, producing two children, music engineer Marc Rudolph and Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live fame.
A year after her marriage, Riperton released her debut solo album, “Come to My Garden”, on GRT Records before taking a two-year break with her husband. The couple moved from Florida to Los Angeles, where Riperton worked with Stevie Wonder as a member of his backing band Wonderlove. Riperton dropped her next album, “Perfect Angel”, in 1974. Co-produced by Wonder and Rudolph, the album contains her biggest hit single “Lovin’ You”. She co-wrote it with her husband Rudolph.
It is documented that the song topped the Billboard pop chart in April 1975, and remained there for a week. It also went to #4 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart, #3 on the R&B singles chart and #2 on the UK singles chart. “Lovin’ You” highlighted Riperton’s highest “whistle register” voice in the song’s bridge. As one account put it, “Riperton possessed an innate coloratura soprano vocal range giving her the ability to sing in a whistle register, producing a sound almost mechanical. Mariah Carey acknowledged that she was highly influenced by Riperton’s range above the scale.”
Though her albums that followed — Adventures in Paradise (1975) and Stay in Love (1977) — did not wow listeners like “Lovin’ You,” that did not really bother Riperton as she had to deal with a much larger problem. The singer had in 1976 been diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent mastectomy but at the time of her diagnosis, her cancer had already spread to other parts of her body. Given six months to live, she went on to live for three more years, becoming a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society while still going on music tours. President Jimmy Carter presented her with a society Courage Award in 1977.
In May 1979, Riperton released her final album, “Minnie”. That same year, on July 12, she breathed her last. She was only 31. The opening lines of her signature song are inscribed in her epitaph: “Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.”